December 13, 2018
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Thai women spread word of endangered tribe

DEER ISLE — The People of the Yellow Leaf are a shy, elusive people living in northern Thailand.

They speak in a lilting tongue, their high-pitched voices falling off at the end of their sentences. Once nomadic, they now live in confined sites surrounded by other, larger indigenous tribes who in the past have exploited them.

They say they want to “live together and love each other forever,” but the Mlabri, as they call themselves, are living on the brink of extinction.

The Mlabri now number only 450 living in two communities, according to Lionel Rosenblatt, a part-time resident of Bucksport and president emeritus of Refugees International. Rosenblatt has worked with the Mlabri for the past seven years in their uphill battle to survive.

Part of that effort began this week with the arrival in Maine of two Mlabri women, La Rakpra, 17, and Ten Painiwat, 31, who will spend the next month traveling around the Northeast in an effort to generate awareness and support for the tribe.

The Mlabri have come under the patronage of Thailand’s Princess Sirindhorn, who is known for her involvement in humanitarian issues, according to Rosenblatt.

“Without the patronage Her Royal Highness Princess Sirindhorn, the Mlabri might not have survived until today,” he said.

But he said that more needs to be done to make people aware of their situation.

On Thursday at the Haystack School of Crafts, the women gave a brief demonstration of their local craft, weaving bags from a vine that grows along the streams near their village. They prepare the vine by hand, using a knife to split the finger-thick pieces of vine. They take the fibers and roll them along their legs to soften them and to prepare them to be “spun” into longer fiber threads — again rolling the fibers between their fingers and along their legs — for the weaving process.

Speaking through an interpreter, the women said they use natural elements, leaves and roots, to dye the fibers before they begin weaving.

The whole process takes about a month, he said.

No two bags are the same; each weaver chooses the size and pattern on each bag. They sell the bags to visitors, mainly the Hmong villagers who surround their small village, and Rosenblatt said he hopes to develop a market outside of Thailand for the bags and for the rattan baskets made by the men in the village.

“When they’re done, they sell it to the first person who comes along, for about $1 to $3 apiece,” he said. “We try to convince them that if they hold onto them, they could sell them for a higher price. But they are so innocent. Getting them to understand that they can do this as a business has been hard.”

People in the other Mlabri village have been producing hammocks, scarves and other items and have begun to develop an international market. Rosenblatt believes that Rakpra and Painiwat’s village could do the same with their woven bags and baskets.

The difficulty has been that the Mlabri people have very little understanding of the world outside their village.

They are known now throughout Thailand, but for many years they were only a legend. They are called People of the Yellow Leaf, and sometimes Ghosts or Spirits of the Yellow Leaf, because until a German anthropologist found them in the 1920s, they had never been seen.

The yellow leaf refers to their custom of topping their bamboo lean-to with banana leaves. When the leaves began to turn yellow, it was a sign that it was time for the nomadic people to move on.

Although the two Mlabri women are the first to leave their village, Rakpra did not seem fazed by the trip that took her halfway around the world.

“I wanted to go,” she said through an interpreter. “I wanted to travel. I didn’t mind.”

Despite the patronage of the princess, the Mlabri still struggle to eke out a living. Rosenblatt said he has a vision of finding the tribe a plot of land that they can call their own where they could live and where a clinic and school could serve the villagers. A museum, set away from the village, also could help to sustain them. He said he also wants to provide a way for the knowledge of the elders to be passed on to the younger generation.

The problem, he said, is that he doesn’t know whether that is the vision of the Mlabri.

“We want it to come from them,” he said. “But they say they want to ‘stay together and love each other for the rest of our lives.’ With no real knowledge of the wider world, their horizon is very limited.”

The goal, he said, is to provide the Mlabri with some ideas about possible options and to advocate for better protection for them. The reason for the trip by the two women is to develop a network of people who can provide that support, including financial support.

Although Rosenblatt has been working under the general umbrella of Refugees International, this effort is a separate effort. Anyone interested may contribute through Humpty Dumpty Institute, 29 West 46th St., Fifth Floor, New York, NY 10036.


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